Dedication to eating healthfully doesn't seem harmful to most people. But, for some, a fixation on healthy eating develops into an obsession that may disrupt other areas of life. It can be concerning when someone suddenly starts avoiding foods they once loved or eliminates entire food groups. Eating disorders and disordered eating can take many forms, one of which is the disordered eating pattern called orthorexia.
What is Orthorexia?
While there is currently no formal criteria for diagnosing orthorexia, it is generally interpreted as an unhealthy fixation on eating “pure” foods. Originally identified as a disordered eating behavior in the '90s, experts believe food marketing claims and social media have continued to fuel the behavior. Like anorexia nervosa, orthorexia is a disorder rooted in food restriction. Unlike anorexia, for people with orthorexia, the focus is generally on the quality instead of the quantity of food being restricted.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), possible warning signs of orthorexia include compulsive checking of ingredients lists and Nutrition Facts Labels, cutting out an increasing number of foods or food groups, showing high levels of distress when "healthy" foods aren't available, and obsessively following "healthy lifestyle" social media accounts and blogs.
Following a certain diet or trying to eat healthfully in itself doesn’t mean someone has orthorexia or another eating disorder. But when a behavior turns into a fixation or obsession it may be a reason for concern. As with any pattern of disordered eating, orthorexia can interfere with an individual’s mental and physical health. In severe cases, orthorexia may lead to malnutrition when critical nutrients are eliminated from the diet.
An Isolating Disorder
Eating together and sharing a meal is a major way we socialize and bond in society. But for people suffering from orthorexia, a family meal can seem like a minefield. Eating food that they don't consider pure, or that someone else has prepared, can cause an extreme amount of anxiety.
Someone suffering from orthorexia may not enjoy food in the same way that someone with a healthy relationship to food does. Rather, people with orthorexia feel virtuous when they eat foods they consider to be good or safe, while deviating from their food restrictions cause anxiety and self-loathing.
The Road to Recovery
Disordered eating patterns can have serious mental and physical health consequences, and successful recovery requires professional help. If you think you or someone you know is suffering from orthorexia, there are a variety of resources available, including talking with a healthcare provider or a psychotherapist.
People with orthorexia often harbor misunderstandings about food or nutrition. A registered dietitian nutritionist can help dispel incorrect information they may believe about what a healthy eating pattern looks like and help them improve their relationship to food.
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